Recently, I accomplished my longstanding, Hollywood-living-style goal of hiring a personal assistant. In addition to changing my life, going through the hiring process reminded me of something I've articulated before--if you want to know how potential employers decide whom to hire, try hiring someone yourself.
I placed an ad on Craigslist seeking a personal assistant. I listed a number of the tasks I wanted performed--basically, anything that frees me up to do higher value-added things--as well as some basic characteristics, along with the salary description and projected hours. I asked that candidates send an email describing why they were qualified and why they wanted the job.
And the torrent was unleashed! In the next 24 hours, I received more than 100 responses. A bunch of them were from clearly qualified people and it was hard to see how I would even select among them, so I took the post down. I felt some duty to make a rational decision, both for my own interests and to reward the best candidates, so I selected using a process of elimination.
First to go were any resumes that were simply attached without explanation. If someone wasn't going to spend five seconds to write any kind of cover, I didn't feel an obligation to review them, nor did I sense any great likelihood that they'd be any good. Next to go were those resumes that had a one or two sentence cover email of the generic, "here's my resume, I look forward to hearing from you" variety. Same reason.
Also dead-on-arrival were cover letters with major typos or grammatical errors. (Two applicants with B.F.A.'s from NYU in screenwriting wrote cover letters filled with sentence fragments and typos.) You get a wide variety in Craigslist, so these were divided between people who were merely sloppy and those who seemed to lack certain basic educational skills. Though I felt sad for the latter, I was not going to hire them.
I still had a hefty electronic pile to process. So I began identifying the ones that I actually liked, as opposed to ones that I could get rid of without guilt. There were a number of extremely, if not bizarrely, qualified candidates, including a lawyer who had gone to Oxford. So at this point I began to look for "fit" -- some sense that this job would be match for them. (If it wasn't, I would expect them to lose motivation or eventually find something else.) So the next group to get booted were candidates who, upon greater perusal, were probably looking for (or clearly needed) full-time jobs. Thus, several recent graduates of Vassar were screened out.
At this point, I had about a dozen candidates who met the criteria: they seemed professional and reliable, and they also seemed to want this type of limited part-time job with someone like me. Looking more closely again, I distinguished between the ones who thought it would be interesting to work around a cool career coach (hooray!) versus those that indicated the need for career coaching themselves (too high maintenance).
Finally I picked three women and one man for phone interviews. I added one more when she made a follow-up inquiry (extra points for effort). I asked four basic, "behavioral-style" questions: I asked them to illustrate times when they'd shown resourcefulness; done things that required trust (like handling money); performed tasks that were tedious but managed to get them done; and handled some kind of office-technology-software issue. Most did very well on these questions, although one found them difficult.
Then I decided on my two finalists, whom I met for in-person interviews. The first one was great. The second one arrived 15 minutes late. Easy choice.
So the big takeaway point here is: in the end, basic professional behavior and tailoring one's application for the actual requirements of the job can make a big difference, even with a giant internet pool like Craigslist. Employers are really looking for a reason why a candidate can fit a particular position; the more you articulate how that works, the higher your chances are for getting the job.